In which The Author spends the day in the pub
It’s the last Monday in August (barring the Bank Holiday, which is by no means part of a representative sample) and I’m in the pub.
I got captured before 12.30 by Ian L., an old schoolmate of mine, while walking through town. He’s a fully-trained and very experienced unisex hairdresser who works here and there, mostly for friends and contacts. I had a glass of Coke while Ian had a pint. For a while we were discussing what to do next week, when the FE Colleges start back. For two years in a row, Ian has been looking to change direction and gain some real qualifications. He spent some time working in Canada, and has the offer of a job if he ever decides to go back there. But he wants to do something different. I walked away from Waterstone’s at the end of May, after 16½ years, with the aim of doing something different. Ian and I are in the same boat.
We were in junior school together, but went to different schools at age 11. Ian left school with a handful of CSEs – a couple of them, at Grade 1, were equivalent to a Grade C pass at O level. This was back in the days when O levels and A levels had some value. Now, when everyone (except Keira, of course) pisses their A levels at the first attempt, our intellectual currency is worth nothing. Ian’s been told that his Grade C O level equivalents don’t count for anything. Of course they don’t – they’re pre-decimal currency in the 21st century. In an age when A levels are given away with breakfast cereal and soft drinks, the buying power of our hard-earned 1980s qualifications has diminished to the point of worthlessness.
For two years in a row, Ian’s been fobbed off onto a Humanities Access Course in Rhydyfelin by the people at Aberdare College. As he said earlier, if he wants to study (say) Geology, a thorough grounding in the outdated theories of Freud and Marx isn’t going to do him much good. By the same token, if I wanted to resume my study of Mathematics, or even go back to Biology, I’d be a bit pissed off if I was told that the only option open to me was to study Psychology, English, Sociology, Law and History for a year or so. It’s a bums on seats course. As long as a couple of dozen people sign up for it at the start of term, the lecturer gets paid.
Ian and I are looking at vocational qualifications. I’m interested in Electrical Installation, with Plumbing as a second option. I’ve been potching with home electrics since I was a teenager. I rewired the upstairs of our house in Trecynon when I was about fifteen with the aid of a book from Dad’s book club, some helpful hints from Mansel, and the approval of our neighbour John – an electrician of many years’ standing, who inspected my work and was impressed by it.
To this day I regret never following Mansel’s hint that he needed an apprentice. I’ll tackle most aspects of domestic electrical work without hesitation. I’ve done it for years. If I do a job at home and need to get it signed off, I know that my mate can come along and certify it immediately for a couple of pints afterwards. Everything is safe, and it saves me a fortune in tradesman’s fees. I’ve also been doing a few simple plumbing jobs about the house over the last couple of years. They’re easy when you know how – you just couldn’t do a full installation from scratch without formal training in the theory. So, maybe the time has come to make some money for myself out of something I know how to do. I just need the paperwork under my belt.
I can’t go back to bookselling. I don’t believe in it any more. I’ve been selling books since I was a teenager. I got into it (as with most things in my life) by accident.
I wanted to get hold of a particular book by Philip José Farmer. At the back of his Granada paperback editions there was a little order form which you could send to a PO Box in Falmouth. It was years before I discovered they were J. Barnicoat & Sons, Trade Wholesalers. They went out of business a decade or more ago. In those days, you sent them the money, plus a small amount for p&p, and they sent you the books you wanted.
But they also sent you catalogues. Before long I had the complete Penguin catalogue, the New English Library list, the Granada list, the Pan/Picador list, the Corgi/Transworld list, the Star/Wyndham list, the Sphere/Orbit list …
A good many years ago, Ross and I were at our friend Rob H.’s house, watching a very strange interview between Clive James and Dr Timothy Leary’s arch-enemy G. Gordon Liddy, which Rob had taped from the TV. Neither he nor Ross were entirely sure who this moustachioed neo-fascist idiot was – but I remember having the publisher’s catalogue when Liddy’s autobiography was first published in the UK. When I read Illuminatus! by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, many years after the fact, I wondered whether I should have bought a copy …
I took the catalogues into school, and soon my friends were asking me to obtain books for them. I’d collect the money, my mother would write the cheque, I’d post the order, and a few days later the parcel would arrive, so that I could deliver the goods to my pals. Of course, I made a loss because I was covering the postage charges myself, but it was a first tentative step into the world of bookselling. It never occurred to us that Graham Ewington, who ran Aberdare’s only real bookshop, would have been able to meet our needs if we’d asked him – and made some money from us, by the time you took wholesalers’ terms into account. Nowadays, my embryonic enterprise would have probably got me some way towards a pass at Business Studies A Level.
[A Digression: About fifteen years ago the bookselling environment changed. The end of the Net Book Agreement, and the subsequent growth of the Internet, sounded the death knell for independent booksellers. There are still a few (like my former area manager and, I’m proud to say my friend, Harry Wainwright) hanging on where they can. Even Waterstone’s, with its marvellous new distribution network which made the redundancies necessary in the first place, failed to take the sheer volume of throughput into account. The last time I called into the Cardiff shop there were about forty or so crates of unshelved stock on a Saturday morning, and three people on the shop floor downstairs. There was apparently a load of stock waiting to be unpacked. The goods-in guys were laid off at the same time as I was. There was nobody to unpack it. Apparently there were ‘hundreds’ of unfulfilled customer orders. (I still dream about that place. I must be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
A week or so ago I was awake at at the crack of dawn, and commented about the fact on Facebook. My former floor manager replied that I should come down and give them a hand with the backlog of shelving. Trish (who finished at the same time as me) told him that the company had thought they could cope with the reduced staffing level, and therefore it was their own fault. I was tempted to second Trish’s comment, but said nothing.]
Over twenty-five years ago, there was no such thing as A level Business Studies. Even if there had been, none of us would have been able to study it. The nearest we got was the option of an O level in ‘Commerce’ ― which was basically foundation book-keeping and elementary economics, designed for someone who was heading for an office job. You were still working for the Man at the end of the day. Our ‘Careers’ teacher was an unreconstructed Communist, who viewed any ambition towards personal gain as a betrayal of our working-class heritage. Those of us who demonstrated academic promise were (reluctantly) steered towards the sixth form. Everyone else was sent down what we now know as the vocational route. They were sent off to learn ‘a trade’ with an apprenticeship, or a City & Guilds course at best. Maybe ‘Red’ Ray Williams had the right idea after all, in spite of all his Marxist bluster. A lot of guys I know who left school with bugger all qualifications on paper are now making bloody good wedge as builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians …
And now it’s 4.30, just over four hours since I came in here. An hour ago, in the corner, a pissed friend of mine was trying to persuade another pissed friend of mine not to take two Extra Strength Anadins washed down with a can of Carling Black Label. She even asked me to intervene. What was I supposed to say? I used to knock back two 500/30 Co-codamols before a shedful of lager, simply to blank the pain from my shoulder. I’m hardly the best person to ask about possible contraindications. I didn’t get to study Pharmacy after I fucked up my Chemistry A level. I’m certainly not a doctor – people can read my writing, so I was immediately rejected when I applied to medical school.
Another pissed bloke asked whether we thought Marilyn Monroe’s death was murder or suicide. What the fuck do I care? She died before I was born, so I couldn’t give a toss anyway. Maybe – if my medical school ambition hadn’t been just a pipe dream – I could have reviewed the autopsy reports and made a decision based on the forensic evidence. As things are, she was just another mediocre actress. She made a couple of decent films and snuffed it. That’s my interest in her summed up. This bloke seems to think the circumstances surrounding her death are still of interest. Maybe he watches too many documentaries on digital TV. Or maybe he just needs to get a life.
Around me, the fuckups of Aberdare are gathering to recover from the weekend, or to carry on from the weekend, or to prepare for the week ahead. This isn’t the only pub where the Monday Club gathers. In fact, there’s a pub a couple of hundred yards away which is the true Monday Club hangout. I’m only on my second pint. Ian and some of his mates have gone to Merthyr on the piss. What’s the point? It costs over £5 to get there on the bus, and you’ll see the same faces and hear the same conversations in the pubs there.
In short, I’m fed up and depressed and bored with Aberdare – and if the college tries to push me into a Humanities Access course next week, I think I’ll be telling them some home truths about life, the universe and everything.
It’s now 6.45. Andrew F., yet another pisshead of my acquaintance, has reappeared after nearly two weeks off-grid. His friend Angela T. has been worried sick about him. I’ve told her before (several times) that I had a mate who used to vanish for weeks at a time, sleeping rough, until he suddenly turned up like a bad penny without offering a word of explanation.
Andrew appeared at my side earlier on, and decided to offer me a full account of his absence. I told him I wasn’t interested. I’ve seen all this before. I told him he needed to apologize to Angela – who had been worrying about him during his fugue – and it seems they might have made up their differences. Or maybe not. No doubt at some time over the next week I’ll get the blow-by-blow story of Andrew’s Lost Weeekend (Director’s Cut) but I bet it’s not as good as my alien abduction.
It’s 7.00. I’m still in the pub, watching some weird videos I’ve downloaded to my hard drive. Carys texted me earlier – very hungover, it seems. I gave her a couple of software links to look at and warned her to sober up beforehand. We’ve agreed to stay Just Good Friends. It’s for the best, really. She doesn’t fancy me, and I don’t go for blondes, even when they’re tiny and mental and extremely pretty. We’re going to go to Pontypridd some time soon, to do a bit of the Taff Trail together – and when we get off the train, we’ll have to pass the office where Jenny works. She might see us together. That would be good. It might make her jealous.
Wesley and I were talking about Jenny earlier. He thought she was a really nice girl. So did I. I thought maybe I’d found a girl who liked me, and whom I could have a relationship with. Her insecurities and commitment phobias drove us apart. We’ve seen each other four times since my birthday, in the middle of March. When she didn’t show up, there was no explanation or excuse until a couple of days later. I was left hanging every time. She had more excuses than Arriva Trains Wales for not turning up.At least Carys is well known for missing trains.
I didn’t want to cast Jenny adrift, but I had to. As Goldfinger says in Ian Fleming’s book of that title: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.’
Ten times is … The sound of a young girl pissing on her chips.
If Carys and I are seen out and about often enough, there’s a small part of me which hopes it might make Jenny jealous. She still knows how to contact me, if the mood takes her. I can’t contact her – she’s blocked on all fronts. She has to make the next move. I’ve wasted enough time on her – but she’s still the only girl who’s really made an impact on me since Emma. It’s up to her to make the next move. I really hope she gets over her psychological hurdles and gets back in touch. It’s selfish and childish, I know, but I don’t want to spend another winter alone …